Ann M. Martin’s popular book series inspired a whole generation of young girls—but does it hold up in 2017?
Does It Suck? takes a deeper look at pop cultural artifacts previously adored, unjustly hated, or altogether forgotten, reopening the book on topics that time left behind.
In the 1980s, entertainment was full of business-minded women on a quest to prove to audiences that we can, in fact, have it all. It was the era of Working Girl and 9 to 5, with women in shoulder pads and hairspray helmets, all fully owning their ambition. And for girls who hadn’t yet aged into work pumps, we had The Baby-Sitters Club.
Ann M. Martin published Baby-Sitters Club #1: Kristy’s Great Idea in 1986. Over the next 14 years, the series originally printed 176,000,000 copies, ultimately spanning 131 books, 15 Super Specials, 36 Mysteries, 4 Super Mysteries, dozens of other spin-off titles, and even a movie and television series. For a generation of young, suburban, entrepreneurially aspirational girls, these books were an important personal touchstone—as well as a connection to that larger zeitgeist of business-minded women.
Fans of the books tended to be passionate. They were hardcore collectors, as well as emulators; Martin has spoken of the many, many letters she’s gotten from fans who tried to start their own babysitting clubs. Inspired by these 11- and 12-year-old girls, with their tightknit friendships and extraordinary business acumen, we were too young to know the lasting influence the ambitious characters had on us.
When something had that big of an impact on you as a child, it usually needs to be relegated to the Do Not Revisit list, in case the actual product doesn’t live up to our memory. But the first book, especially, is sweetly and smartly written—pure young fiction gold. Many of the later books—even the mysteries and specials—are good for their target demographic. But, to be fair, they’re not worth revisiting as adults. Martin herself left after book #35, and it’s not long after that that the series takes on a factory conveyor belt feeling.
The Baby-Sitter’s Club was about a decade before Dawson’s Creek set the standard for youths spouting an unrealistic vocabulary, beholden to a need to appeal to an adult or professionally critical audience. These books, instead, treat their young characters with the utmost respect, while still staying true to their ages. These girls were exceptionally responsible, a fact acknowledged by the book’s adult characters only indirectly so as not to kill our admiration with obvious "Be Like These Girls" speeches.
Despite the babysitters’ near-transcendent level of adolescent responsibility, Martin makes sure to keep their maturity level realistic and relatable; when they fought, they fought like middle-schoolers. They’re self-centered and petty, and some of the plotlines centered on meaningless fights are cringingly skippable. But these girls are, above all, portrayed honestly and lovingly—even when they’re forcing us to relive pointless pubescent squabbles.
Many women characters who’ve made an impact on larger society have come in groups, each one fitting a relatable archetype. Are you a Carrie or Miranda? A Jo March or an Amy? My strongest memory from reading BSC as a kid was how each character did clearly fit into an established archetype: the leader, the shy one, the artist, the sophisticate. We were all one of these girls; we were all of them.
What I remembered loving so strongly as a child was that, unlike the usual archetype setups, we may have identified with one of these characters over the other—but with the books switching off narrators every volume, each gave a loving yet utterly honest view of every other girl. I was fascinated with this window into how these girls saw not just themselves, but each other. Their flaws and strengths were freely discussed, with a gaze as critical as it was admiring.
A common fear in revisiting books from the 80s and 90s is whether or not they’ll hold up to our current standards of representation. Martin, in this case, was shockingly ahead of her time—though, of course, the books could’ve been better in this aspect. While no character she wrote was canonically queer, Martin herself casually came out in recent years as having a female partner—and boy, does that make retroactive sense for lifelong readers! The girls all had male romantic interests, but Martin’s commitment to a loving and insightful understanding of each character might very well have been many girls’ first encounter with a dedicated female gaze.
Plus, for a book set in an ultra-white fictional Connecticut suburb, Martin still managed to include surprising instances of inclusive diversity. Claudia Kishi’s Japanese heritage was always treated with total respect. Later, when the club introduced its first black character Jessi, Martin didn’t shy away from telling the story of a white-as-fuck Connecticut town featuring kids—and, let’s be real, a whole lot of adults—with ingrained racism built into their suburban ways. From the first book, Martin went above and beyond with the depiction of Stacey’s diabetes, dedicating books to doctors who presumably advised along the way and devoting large swaths of exposition to her illness.
For hardcore fans of the books, a revisit will be a nostalgia kick well worth your time. Let’s be real, we can’t be that far from a movie or Netflix reboot. (To be honest, a modern app-based Baby-Sitters Club is a great idea.) And as most of us original fans are now closer to the age of Stoneybook parents, you should feel no hesitation in digging your collection out of storage to pass on to the next generation of baby-sitters.